HUNGARIAN literature is being taught at several universities in the English speaking world. The language of instruction is mostly English, but there is no up-to-date general history of Hungarian literature in English, and there are a few books only on major writers, in spite of a recent upward trend in Hungarian studies in the United States.

The first references to Hungarian literature in English are surprisingly early. Richard Bright (1789-1858), who is remembered for the discovery of ‘Bright’s disease’, was the first Englishman to make critical comments about it in his Travels from Vienna to Lower Hungary (Edinburgh, 1818). The real pioneer was, however, Sir John Bowring (1792-1872) who in the 1820s and 1830s called attention to the lesser-known literatures of Europe. Although his knowledge of the languages concerned was slight, his enthusiasm and industry seem to have been unlimited. In his introduction to the Poetry of the Magyars (1830) he produced the first historical survey of Hungarian literature, with some original observations. In the course of the nineteenth century numerous articles were written by others, like Julia Pardoe (1806-62), particularly after the 1848-9 War of Independence, when public attention turned to Hungary. In addition, literary magazines of high quality, like the Academy or the Athenaeum, carried notices of books from Hungary and reported literary events from there, and there were scholars, mainly in the British Museum (which has been systematically collecting books in Hungarian since the 1840s), like Thomas Watts (1811-69), E. D. Butler (1842-1919), and R. Nisbet Bain (1854-1909), a diligent translator of Jókai, who paid attention to Hungarian literature and were familiar with the language, and who supplied information on Hungarian literature to reference books, including the Encyclopaedia Britannica. None of them, however, attempted to write a continuous, major narrative, although at least one of them would have been fully qualified to do so.

The need for a detailed history of Hungarian literature arose at the turn of the century mainly because of the spectacular success of a single Hungarian author, Jókai, whose novels were published in quick succession and in large editions on both sides of the Atlantic. The first full, book-length history of Hungarian literature was commissioned by Jarrold & Sons, the London publisher of Jókai. True, it was preceded by a short, seventy-page survey produced in Hungary for a commemorative volume (The Millennium of Hungary and its People, ed. J. Jekelfalussy, Budapest, 1897) which was an abridged translation of a popular work, A magyar irodalom kistükre (1896), written by a leading scholar, Zsolt Beöthy (1842-1922). This book, like many books published in English on the Continent, passed almost unnoticed in England. In addition it was an outlandish attempt in both conception and execution.

Not so the book published by Jarrold & Sons, written by a versatile man of letters, Emil Reich (1854-1910), a Hungarian by birth and upbringing who settled in England and became a popular author and lecturer. His Hungarian Literature: An Historical and Critical Survey (1898) is a noteworthy attempt at presenting Hungarian literature to a public totally unfamiliar with its history and characteristics. Reich made many interesting observations and comparisons, for example, about the lack of a bourgeois trend in nineteenth-century literature, which is a commonplace view now, but was a novelty then.

The next and so far the best history was produced by a professional, Frigyes Riedl (1856-1921), who was Professor of Hungarian Literature at the University of Budapest. Commissioned by Messrs Heinemann of London for their Short Histories of the Literatures of the World, Riedl wrote an original work which has never been published in Hungarian. Riedl, who took special care to tailor his book to the needs of the English-speaking reader, was a pupil of Taine, with whom he shared the view that the complete expression of a society is to be found in its literature and that the way to obtain an idea of a society is to study its literature; his History of Hungarian Literature (1906) was also published in New York in the same year.

After World War I, interest in Hungarian literature declined and scholarship was also neglected until the 1930s. The only competent scholar to emerge before World War II was a Hungarian-American, Joseph Reményi (1891-1956), who eventually became Professor of Comparative Literature at Western Reserve University (Cleveland, Ohio). He published articles on an astonishing number of Hungarian writers in scholarly journals and reference books, employing the methods of comparative literature and profiting from his vast knowledge of European literatures. Unfortunately he never wrote a continuous history, yet his essays, collected and edited by August J. Molnár (Hungarian Writers and Literature, Rutgers U. P., 1964), seem to form a nearly-complete portrait gallery of the major Hungarian authors, and the reader of the present book will find many references to Reményi’s works in the bibliography. In Canada Professor Watson Kirkconnell (1895-1977) deserves mention, though his interest in Hungarian literature was confined to translation.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica has always contained well-informed articles on Hungarian literature, and an expanded version of the essay written by Béla Menczer for the 1955 edition was published separately under the title A Commentary on Hungarian Literature (Castrop-Rauxel, 1956). Mr Menczer’s book is by a non-specialist for the general public, yet his approach is often original, as he is not fettered by the traditional views unconsciously adopted by scholars in close contact with the Hungarian literary scene.

After the revolution of 1956 conditions returned to normal in the early 1960s, and official Hungarian cultural policy once more set out to implement an age-old cultural aspiration by energetically popularizing Hungarian literature abroad, particularly in the West. Besides translations, the need for a modern Marxist history of Hungarian literature was strongly felt. A recently written short history, Kis magyar irodalomtörténet (1961), by three leading scholars (T. Klaniczay, J. Szauder, and M. Szabolcsi) was translated into several languages, including English (Budapest, 1964). The original Hungarian version reflected the changed times; scholarship was no longer in the grip of Stalinist dogmas, a fact which was welcomed by the Hungarian public. Looking at the slightly modified text in English, however, the foreign reader may still be baffled by the persistent use of Marxist jargon, unfamiliar clichés, and a maze of outlandish names. This was of course noticed by the authorities, and a new, shorter, and considerably improved version of the book, brought up to date and in a revised translation, was published in the bulky handbook Information Hungary (ed. F. Erdei, Oxford, 1968).

Needless to say, no ‘official’ history could provide adequate coverage of Hungarian literature, as such a history must be governed by non-literary considerations and restrictions. One such restriction is that it ignores Hungarian literature written outside Hungary, although in the past few years efforts have been made in Hungary to admit the existence of authors living abroad. In addition, the need for a modern, non-Marxist history has for some time been felt in the United States, where there is an increasing interest in East European scholarship, and even such obsolete books as Reich’s and Riedl’s have been reprinted. In the early 1970s the Joint Committee on Eastern Europe (set up by the American Council of Learned Societies), having surveyed the state of recent scholarship, decided to give high priority in the field of humanities to providing comprehensive histories of the national literatures of the region; consequently a number of such histories, including one of Hungarian literature, were commissioned.

The present work was written between 1973-8 and its aim is twofold: first, to provide a textbook, as comprehensive as possible within the limits of space, for students of literature whose mastery of the language is not sufficient to study Hungarian literature in the original; and secondly, to serve as a guide to one aspect of Hungarian intellectual history for those whose interest in Hungary is broader than, but includes, its literature. The nucleus of the book originated in my teaching experience at the University of California, Berkeley, which suggested that I should write a conventional history. Consequently the reader will find here a general outline of the stages of growth of Hungarian literature with brief descriptions of the major intellectual movements, examined within the context of the religious, historical, social, and political background, including foreign influences when appropriate, a critical survey of all the major authors, and short sketches of the minor ones, together with some indication of their more significant works. Most authors are illustrated with at least a few lines from their work; detailed biography is included whenever the life-work of a particular author warrants it.

In addition, knowing that detailed analysis of major works is obligatory in a study of a literature so remote and little known as Hungarian, I have included detailed studies of a number of masterpieces. There would be no justification for such details about King Lear and Tom Jones in a history of English literature, but all statements about The Peril of Sziget or Csongor and Tünde require instant reference to a summary of the plot. Moreover, when selecting authors for inclusion I have had to pay special attention to writers whose works have been translated into English. Many third-rate authors have been translated as part of a certain vogue, be it political or some other; non-specialist librarians may have enriched their college libraries with such authors, and the occasional readers may use them as a basis for his opinion about the whole of a national literature. It is necessary to put these authors into their correct place in the history of their literature.

A textbook should be as objective as is humanly possible, but I am aware that any history of literature is merely a compilation of facts, events, and views arranged by its author’s choice and decision, which are always influenced, if not governed, by personal tastes, preferences, and aversions. This is not a peculiarity of literary history; Bertrand Russell, for example, could produce a highly enjoyable history of Western philosophy without once mentioning Kierkegaard. For the most part I have tried to adhere to conventional views and arrangements, as my intention was to convey a traditional view of Hungarian literature to the reader, but I could not avoid a certain degree of divergence, the outcome of my own studies and reinterpretations. In such cases I have felt obliged to refer to the generally accepted view.

One particularly annoying feature of writing a history of literature is the arrangement of its chronology. While T. S. Eliot could claim that ‘the whole of literature of Europe from Homer has a simultaneous existence’, a sequence of authors must be decided in a book. This is easy in the earlier centuries, when authors are few, but can be well-nigh impossible in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when writers and schools emerged at an alarming rate and nearly simultaneously. In addition, history produced sharp dividing lines in literature, notably 1849, 1919, 1945, and 1956, yet there are many authors who can be discussed either before or after these dates. This is a major problem of Marxist literary history, in which literature is viewed as an organic growth and periods are therefore treated as organic units. There have been long and tedious controversies among Marxist scholars to establish the theoretically correct periods of Hungarian literature, with unconvincing results.

I decided to establish the sequence of authors based on the dates when they first came into prominence, or when they produced their most significant works, which often, but not always, coincide. This of course created difficulties with authors whose creative career was exceptionally long. Grouping authors was far easier, as Hungarian writers of similar artistic or political creed frequently rallied round periodicals which they established and made into strongholds of their literary camp. Consistent application of the above premises may have led to absurdities, since the division into periods is artificial in any case, although no history of literature can do without them as a matter of convenience.

The material here presented gradually increases in volume as we approach the present. Hungarian literature before the Enlightenment, with the exception of Balassi, Zrínyi, and Mikes, is of limited interest to the foreign student. Literature in Hungary has always been primarily a vehicle for national survival and social improvement, yet I believe that it is not merely the record of the collective experience of a people which is preserved in order that posterity may reflect upon it. While my main concern has naturally been to describe the mainstream of Hungarian literature, I have also taken pains to show those facets, particularly in this century, which are less introspective, less devoted to national issues. This was a hard task, since histories of Hungarian literature, both Marxist and non-Marxists, have been on the whole blind to authors who neglected their share of national responsibilities. This was one of the lessons I learnt while writing this book, and I could receive no greater reward for my efforts than if future scholarship should set out to unravel from the national priorities and idiosyncrasies a literature which is largely unknown to Hungarians.

Each chapter is constructed as a unit on its own with a brief sketch of the historical or social background, as one cannot assume familiarity with the general background. Each chapter has its own protagonists, with a supporting cast of minor authors. I have paid special attention to English-Hungarian and American-Hungarian literary relations, and have incorporated the literary opinions on Hungarian literature produced in the English-speaking world in the past hundred and fifty years. In the later chapters I had special difficulties with authors of the recent past who have been unduly neglected or disowned by Marxist scholarship; certain writers have never been included in a history, and sometimes even accurate philological data about them are rare, not to mention reliable critical evaluation.

Titles of books and periodicals are quoted in English in the main text, with a few exceptions (e.g. Nyugat, which is now a byword for a Hungarian literary movement). They are either translated by me or are borrowed from existing English translations. To avoid confusion, however, all the original titles are recorded in the Index of Authors and Works Quoted. While this arrangement was employed to reduce the number of foreign words in the main text, the translation of bibliographical references in my opinion serves no useful purpose but takes up much space. Therefore entries in the General Bibliography are given in the language in which they have been published.

Titles of books are italicized and followed by the date of the first edition unless otherwise indicated; titles of short stories and poems are in inverted commas and followed by the date of writing whenever it can be firmly established. Place of publication is given unless it is Budapest. Place-names, particularly historical place-names, follow Hungarian usage, otherwise the reader may experience unnecessary difficulties in identifying them when dealing with material in Hungarian. A list of modern equivalents is provided in the Glossary.

Notes are kept to a minimum; no references are given, as this would impose an additional burden on readability. My most important sources may be identified by reference to the appropriate section of the bibliography. Special explanatory notes are provided for terms used in Hungarian when they first occur, unless they are self-evident in the context. When a term is familiar from works in English specializing in Hungarian history (e.g. The Conquest or The Settlement), or when it is more or less self-evident (‘pure rhyme’ or the ‘classicist triad’) I have preferred the English terms. Nevertheless I have introduced several Hungarian terms, mostly those which are indispensable (e.g. virágének) and/or cannot be adequately translated or would create a strange impression if used in English, or which are of historical interest as they are no longer standard expressions, though earlier scholarship used them extensively (e.g. főrangú poets). All such terms are included in the Glossary.

A major setback in writing a book of this kind is the scarcity of artistic translations, and, as a history of literature is a lame story without some illustrative material, I have often had to make do with literal translations which do not have the force of the original or of a literary rendering. This is particularly sad in the case of poetry since this is the leading genre of Hungarian literature. Still, I hope the substitutes I have given can stand on their own in English and convey, if not the beauty of the original, at least an adequate impression of the original.

Finally, on a more personal note, let me conclude this introduction with a reference to Professor Riedl’s History of Hungarian Literature. When he surveyed the state of contemporary literature at the end of his book, he felt compelled to write: ‘The golden age of Hungarian literature has been followed by a period of comparative mediocrity, and the great talent and lofty inspiration … are missing.’ These words were published in the very same year as Ady triumphantly broke in on the literary scene with a volume of verse that radically altered the course of Hungarian literature and heralded a new golden age. When I came to write the last chapter of the present book and to survey present trends and new departures, I too was unable to discover outstanding young authors comparable to the now classic masters of the Nyugat period. I hope I may be proved as wrong in my conclusion as Professor Riedl was in his prediction of seventy odd years ago.